In the sixty years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China the national illiteracy rate has plummeted from 80 percent to below 10 percent. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
China’s educational system, the largest in the world, achieved remarkable gains from 1949 to 2009, despite political upheaval and relatively low levels of funding—resulting in dramatically improved literacy rates, sky-rocketing enrollment in colleges, and the focus on developing internationally competitive universities. How China faces the next decade’s set of challenges will be the focus of educators worldwide.
When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, 20 percent of school-age children attended primary school. Sixty years later enrollment is over 99 percent, and the national illiteracy rate has plummeted from 80 to below 10 percent. China’s schools serve more than 200 million primary and secondary school students, nearly 19 million college students, and well over 5 million adult higher education students. Educational quality rather than quantity now preoccupies policy makers, educators, and the public, all of whom desire education that is effective, equitable, innovative, and life-long.
During the next decade educational reform will remain challenging. Slowing economic growth, rising expectations for educational access through college, increasing unemployment among high school and college graduates, lack of accreditation and quality control systems in higher education, rapid urban-rural migration, and a persistent gap in educational quality and opportunity between rural and urban communities require urgent attention. In this context, China’s first education educational reform plan of the twenty-first century charts a twelve-year course for education aligned with the goals of social and economic development for a “harmonious, moderately prosperous society,” technology innovation, improvement of rural education and teachers’ welfare, and systemic reform of elementary, vocational, and higher education.
Achieving Universal Basic Education
China’s education system is anchored by the belief in the power of schooling. Surveys show that family budgets give top priority to educational expenses, followed by health and housing. Reforms in education through much of the 1990s brought a shift of financial responsibility from the central government to local communities. State funding of education dropped from 84.5 percent of total costs in 1991 to 64.7 percent in 2006, and tuition as a source of funding increased from 4.42 to 15.8 percent in 2006. The decrease in national funding forced schools at all levels to generate income from school businesses, services, and fee-paying students, worsening educational gaps between rich and poor counties. During the last ten years the state has recentralized some financial responsibility primarily through poverty-relief and basic education support programs. Nevertheless, school funding remains a point of controversy. Although national policy prescribes government expenditures of 4 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) on education, current estimates range from 2.2 to 3 percent, a figure virtually unchanged since the 1950s.
To address educational disparity between rural and urban regions in particular the state has relied primarily on school finance reform. Beginning in 1986, funding was decentralized, and county- and village-level education offices gained a greater degree of decision-making power. While elite urban schools received considerable public support, financial responsibility for rural schools was left largely to local communities that relied heavily on surcharges. The current bright spot in enhancing educational equity is the Two Exemptions and One Subsidy (TEOS) policy that provides students financial support for school fees, textbooks, and boarding costs. Along with the establishment in 2005 of the Rural Compulsory Education Assured Funding Mechanism, which has rationalized and re-centralized to the central and provincial levels universal support for rural and urban compulsory schooling, the state has finally made central to its efforts to “build a socialist new countryside” genuinely free basic education.
Since the 1980s a majority of urban children have attended preschool, reflecting the mobilization of women outside the household and China’s one-child-per-family policy. By 2006 gross preschool enrollment rates reached 39 percent for three- to five-year-olds. In 2007 China’s 320,061 primary schools enrolled 105.64 million pupils. Net enrollment rates reached 99.49 and promotion rates were 100 percent. Declining primary-school enrollments have allowed officials to close poor schools, in some cases decrease class size, and increase teaching standards. Revised standards for the primary school curriculum, instituted on a trial basis in 2001, have enabled well-rounded training in language arts, mathematics and sciences, social studies, physical education, and music and art. English-language and information-technology instruction begin in third grade in schools with sufficient resources.
Since the mid-2000s China has put in place policies, largely fiscal, that ensure free compulsory schooling. In 2007 China’s gross enrollment rate for pupils in junior secondary school (grades seven through nine), a part of the compulsory education system since 1985, was 98 percent. Coastal cities that have universalized junior secondary schooling have eliminated selective entrance examinations in favor of neighborhood schooling. Junior secondary schools enrolled approximately 57.36 million pupils nationally in 2007.
Graduation from junior secondary school represents the transition of adolescents to stratified senior secondary schools, work, or unemployment. Although junior secondary school dropout rates remain worrisome, between 1990 and 2007 promotion rates to senior secondary school increased from 40.6 to 75.7 percent. Senior secondary schooling is nearly universalized in metropolitan areas such as Shanghai, where 98 percent of junior secondary graduates continued their education in 2007. Reforms in senior secondary school have included new textbooks, elective courses, information technology, credit systems, and an approach to moral education that stresses community participation, “healthy leisure,” and discovery learning. New curricular standards established in 2001 give individual schools more flexibility in deciding how their teachers can best engage students in a well-rounded course of study in Chinese, English, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, computer sciences, social studies, geography, arts, music, and physical sciences. College preparatory courses, criticized by some as being too difficult, have been streamlined to offer students time for co-curricular pursuits. Systems of accreditation are being established for advanced teachers and private schools; in-service training and increased educational qualifications are required for teachers and principals.
The content, guidelines, and structure for competency and matriculation examinations are also adapting to meet changing curricular standards. Many cities and provinces have adopted a college entrance examination system that requires examinations in Chinese, English, and mathematics plus one or two optional subjects, usually chosen from history, physics, politics, and chemistry. High-achieving students sometimes are exempted from exams. Expanding college enrollment drives such reforms. The chances for students in metropolitan centers to enter college have never been greater (but college has never cost
more). Living in educational centers greatly improves a student’s chance for higher education; such centers have more resources to spend on education and consequently have more desks available in high schools and colleges. Of Beijing’s senior secondary graduates, 75.9 percent entered higher education in 2008.
In spite of state efforts to make compulsory schooling accessible for all children, rural education faces significant challenges. Most recently the devastation of schools and the deaths of over 10,000 school children as a result of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake became a lightning rod for public outcry at the lack of attention to rural schooling, in spite of improved supervision at the national level. Pressures for junior middle school students to become migrant workers explain drop-out rates that reach 30 percent or higher. Nearly 70 million children of migrant parents are “left behind” in homes with one or no parents, leaving rural schools overwhelmed with custodial responsibilities. At least until the economic downturn of 2008 as many as twenty million migrant children under 18 years of age were living in cities and working as laborers, many without access to schooling (Ministry of Education 2005; China Statistical Yearbook 2006).
Admission to senior high school is difficult for rural students who have proportionately fewer high school options than their urban counterparts. Many rural students who are successful in college preparatory high schools cannot take full advantage of the dramatic expansion of higher education, whose gross enrolment rates were 23 percent in 2007 compared to 3 percent in the early 1990s. High college tuition on top of heavy high school fees creates a financial burden beyond the means of poor rural families. Likewise, midwestern and western provinces have far fewer quotas than their eastern counterparts for entrance of their students into prestigious institutions of higher education.
Expanding Tertiary Education
Until the last ten years the base of China’s educational pyramid, relative to that of other developing countries, has been broad whereas the top has been narrow. In 1990 3 percent of Chinese eighteen- through twenty-two-year-olds were studying in tertiary institutions, compared with 8 percent in India; fewer than one out of every one hundred citizens was a college graduate. Since China’s integration into the global economy, higher education has entered a phase of unprecedented expansion. During the first decade of the twenty-first century the proportion of eighteen- through twenty-two-year-olds in higher education has increased from 9 to 23 percent
In 2007 enrollment in 1,908 regular tertiary institutions was 18.85 million. Enrollment in adult higher education was well over 5 million. The continuous rise in the number of people pursuing bachelor and master degrees has offered an enormous market for education and training but also has lead to a mismatch between college degree holders and the labor market.
Along with expansion comes the desire to build world class schools—in mid-1990s the 211 Project, to strengthen programs and disciplines in one hundred key universities for the twenty-first century, and in the late 1990s the 985 Works, to build up several universities to an internationally advanced competitive level—and the need to prioritize state funding for the very top-ranked colleges.
Reforms in higher education have been aimed at decentralized and/or diversifying funding and increasing institutional accountability and quality. While even elite institutions have grown substantially, primarily due to consolidation, second and third tier institutions have increased dramatically in number and size. Majors and disciplines are being redefined. Some colleges allow qualified students to graduate early. At the same time benefits such as housing, education, and health services for college staff and faculty have decreased as colleges contract out services. Whereas the number of college students grew from 2,184,000 in 1992 to 18,850,000 in 2007 the number of support staff grew much more slowly from 1 million to just under 2 million.
Financial aid and student services stand at the forefront of change. Measures at the national, provincial, city, and institutional levels to help students afford college have accompanied striking increases in tuition, which in Beijing in 2007 ranged from 5,000 yuan for ordinary majors at second-tier institutions to 10,000 yuan for performing arts and arts design courses at elite institutions. Colleges that offer teaching and research assistantships, the banking industry, and the Ministries of Education and Finance support national student loan programs. Questions of equity remain. First, a sound system of financial aid is still underdeveloped. Since 1997, Chinese higher education funding has been increasingly tuition-driven and expensive. Meanwhile, accompanying the increasing gap between the rich and the poor and the massification of higher education, families from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds have become involved in higher education (Ding, 2006). According to official statistics, there are now 2,400,000 impoverished college students in China, accounting for 20 percent of the undergraduate population. Furthermore, these students from lower-income families are more inclined to choose normal or agriculture universities, which provide free education or education at low rates of tuition. First-tier universities are inclined to accept students from wealthier families, while second tier universities are inclined to accept more poor students (Ding, 2006). How to provide enough need-based financial aid to achieve equality in access to higher education has emerged as a huge educational problem in China. In addition, students from the hinterland have much less chances
Raising Teaching Standards
Efforts have been underway for well over a decade to require teachers in primary and secondary schools to have four-year college degrees. A national continuing education mandate requires in-service training of 240 to 520 hours every five years. Such efforts to raise standards, coupled with expansion in secondary and tertiary education, have created a shortage of qualified teachers. The teacher-student ratio in colleges increased sharply; at the same time a record number of faculty members was on the verge of retirement, up from 5.6 percent in 1992 to 15.5 percent in 2004. Colleges now are compelled to attract teachers by increasing salaries and opportunities for foreign travel. Competition has also developed among colleges in the training of teachers. Comprehensive colleges are encouraged to institute teacher-training programs, and normal colleges are responding with more specialized and flexible training options.
Improving the stability and quality of the teaching force is critical in rural areas where primary school teachers until recently were not state employees but instead were hired by local communities as minban (community managed) teachers. Minban teachers work in public and community schools but are paid by subsidies and non-budgetary allocations from villages. Because such teachers do not receive a regular salary from the government, they have difficulty maintaining an adequate standard of living. In response, several ministries recognized qualified minban teachers as state employees. In impoverished counties in rural and western China regional variations in the quality of the teaching force have also inspired distance education programs for female and ethnic minority teachers.
Private Schools Filling the Gap in Capacity
Private schooling reemerged at all levels of the education system during the 1990s. In 2007 more than 95,000 non-state educational institutions existed, reflecting a diversity of programs and
administrative and fiscal autonomy. Non-state preschools and kindergartens accounted for 60 percent of the total. In addition, China had more than 16,000 non-state primary and secondary schools, 297 nationally accredited non-state colleges, and 318 independent colleges affiliated with state universities, and more than 900 pilot non-state colleges offering diploma courses.
Among the reasons for the increase in private schools have been lack of state funding, rigidity in the public sector, and restricted entrance to public schools. The state’s policy of encouraging, guiding, and effectively administering private schools was also intended to boost the economy by prompting families to use their savings on the one “commodity” they desire—education for their children.
As private education has become a major force in reform, many private schools are short-term or proprietary institutions. Others provide a forum for experimentation in teaching and community-government relations. For example, private girls’ schools experiment with an array of curricula—in music, drawing, martial arts, driver’s training, information technology, and psychology—that is designed to meet the needs of healthy female development. Such schools fill educational gaps left by a state that has not been able or willing to provide sufficient schooling to meet public demand. Because private schools face opposition from local authorities who are protective of scarce funds, many such schools are enmeshed in community-level conflicts. As state schools or branch schools run by public institutions have expanded, many private schools have also been forced out of business.
Educating the Margins
Inequalities in access to a good education in China are a result of complex patterns of historical regional, ethnic, and gender discrimination. Primarily, China’s best-educated and worst-educated regions reflect the economic disparities between the coastal and interior regions.
China has been a high-profile participant in international efforts to eliminate illiteracy and exploitative child labor and to universalize basic schooling. Outside aid from organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank and domestic support from programs such as Project Hope, the China Youth Development Foundation’s social welfare program, have focused on these goals, especially in areas where the poorest 20 percent of China’s population live. Efforts in the 1990s and 2000s have primarily been directed at the two-thirds of illiterates and school dropouts who were poor, minority, rural females. China has reintroduced all-girls’ schools and classrooms in both rural and urban communities.
As noted above, female students comprise an increasing proportion of the enrollment of non-compulsory schools. However, their location within the system (disproportionately weighted in the humanities, foreign languages, and teacher education) is still largely determined by gender. As of 2006 nationwide, 48.06 percent of students in regular higher education institutions were female. Female full-time teachers made up 44.42 percent of college teaching staff, 45.64 and 54.79 percent of the general secondary and primary staff, respectively, and 92.72 percent of kindergarten staff. Females made up 50.38 percent of students in senior vocational high schools, 46.83 percent in senior high, and around 45 percent in regular and vocational junior high schools.
China’s campaign to universalize basic education has also shined a spotlight on ethnic minority regions, which span 60 percent of China’s territory and lag behind in education and economic indicators. Although minority students usually attend primary schools at Han Chinese levels, literacy rates for twenty-eight of the fifty-five minority groups are below that of the Han majority; minority students are considerably underrepresented in secondary and higher education. A system of two-track schools that teaches in either Mandarin or the local minority language perpetuates discrimination. The system, designed to protect minority cultures, places minority students at a disadvantage in competing for jobs in business and government, which require Chinese-language skills.
China’s disabled population arguably is the group that is most marginalized by the practices of formal and non-formal education. The government in 1990 enacted legislation to protect the rights of China’s 60 million disabled citizens, 25 percent of whom live in poverty. That same year the Ministry of Education signed the Special Education Project Task Agreement with twenty-one provinces to universalize compulsory education among disabled children. At that time 358,372 disabled children were enrolled in all types of schools, almost exclusively outside mainstream education. The numbers had increased slightly to 374,500 by 2002. Special education provision remains hampered by China’s lack of qualified special educators and facilities.
Education and Globalization
China’s eleventh five year plan, 2006–2010, has shifted the nation’s overall priorities from rapid growth and the creation of wealth to “common prosperity” and sustainable social and economic development for the creation of a harmonious society. The educational system is linked to this cause through policies designed to increase educational opportunity and excellence. All schools are to offer accessible, high-quality, student-centered education, and a top tier are to become world class institutions promoting scientific innovation and creativity. These “world-class” aspirants are part of a global educational culture, exchanging students, teachers, and knowledge with counterparts around the world.
How China deals with the challenges of its education system matters well beyond its national boundaries. Teachers and scholars worldwide look to China’s education system for inspiration. Students who are emerging from China’s schools are shaping global patterns of the production of knowledge, particularly in science and technology. Lastly, collaborative scholarly networks, improved as more Chinese intellectuals participate in international scholarly and professional organizations, have resulted in an explosion of research on Chinese education. These trends suggest that China will be a leader in educational reform in the twenty-first century.
The Girls “Left Behind”
I was born into a poor farming family. I have several sisters, and parents aged and weakened by years of hard work. Three years ago we had a most unfortunate surprise. Father’s liver had hardened to an advanced stage. This added substantially to the family’s burden. Mother bravely hid her constant tears, but we knew things needed to change. Older sister quit school to earn money to help pay for father’s treatments. To lessen the financial strains on the family, I also left school to help out at home. The instant I stepped out of the schoolyard for what I thought was forever, tears streamed down my face. (A left-behind girl, fourteen years old).
Source: Ross H.. (2006, June). The girls “left behind.” Guanxi: The China letter, 1(2): 8.
Ross, H. with contributions by Jingjing Lou, Lijing Yang, Olga Rybakova, & Phoebe Wakhunga. (2005). Where and who are the world’s illiterates: China. Background Paper for UNESCO Global Monitoring Report.
Seeberg, V. & Ross, H., Tan, G. & Liu, J. (2007). The case for prioritizing education for girls left behind in remote rural China. In D. Baker & A. Wiseman, (Eds.). International Perspectives on Education and Society, Vol. 8, 111–158. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd.
Source: Ross, Heidi A. (2009). Education System. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 674–680. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Students take an English lesson in a school located in a coastal Chinese town where fishing is a principal means of subsistence. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
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